The Buffalo Sabres have been a better team with Jack Eichel in the lineup.
But not by as much as they’d hoped.
When Eichel was hurt to start the season, they went 7-9-5. Since he’s been back, they’ve gone 5-4-3 — a decidedly “meh” improvement.
The Sabres entered the Christmas break with no wins in their last four. They got embarrassed, 5-1, by the Islanders on Dec. 23. And to make matters worse, now they’ll be without Ryan O'Reilly (appendectomy) indefinitely.
“We have to figure out what kind of team we want to be,” captain Brian Gionta said after the debacle in Brooklyn. “We have to be a simple team, creating offense, passing and executing.”
It has to be frustrating for Terry Pegula, whose other Buffalo team isn’t doing so well either. Pegula became the Sabres owner in 2011, with much fanfare and optimism.
“Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup,” he famously said at the time.
But the team hasn’t come close yet. It has missed the playoffs the last five seasons, and barring a heck of a comeback in 2016-17, it will miss them again.
To be sure, there are the makings of a better team. Eichel is still only 20; Sam Reinhart is 21, and Rasmus Ristolainen 22. Alexander Nylander, the eighth overall draft pick in 2016, has yet to make his NHL debut; he’s only 18.
Still, the Sabres had higher hopes for 2016-17. They’d signed Kyle Okposo and traded for Dmitry Kulikov. GM Tim Murray said the goal was “to make the playoffs, and we actually do expect that we can do that.”
And yet, they will enter tonight’s game in Detroit in last place in the Atlantic Division, eight points back of third-place Boston. Their offense ranks 28th; their goals-against 11th.
For Murray, major questions abound. Why can’t this team score at five-on-five? Is it time to move on from Evander Kane? How can the blue line be bolstered? Is Dan Bylsma the right head coach?
It has been a long time since the Sabres were Stanley Cup contenders. They went to the Eastern Conference Final in 2007, but haven’t won a postseason series since.
While the fan base largely accepted the “suffering” that went with a tear-it-down rebuild, it will not, and should not, accept much more losing.